Bills legend Thurman Thomas makes run at new career in construction

Years after leaving the NFL, Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas is making a run at a new career operating a construction company.

Thomas, who lives in Western New York, partnered with a former Buffalo Bills teammate, wide receiver Fulton “Flip” Johnson, to form 3480 Group, a construction and engineering firm that specializes in telecommunications and handles other jobs.

The small startup company, founded two years ago, has mostly operated in the Southeast, particularly the Atlanta area, where Johnson lives, as well as in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, but is now seeking to make inroads in upstate and Western New York after moving its headquarters to Buffalo.

And it is counting on a new relationship with Gilbane Building Co., one of the world’s biggest construction companies, to help it grow, including by bringing in 3480 Group on some of its projects as a subcontractor for specific tasks.

Already, 3480 is providing technical assistance to Gilbane on a $40 million student center expansion and renovation project at the State University at Albany’s campus.

“We felt it was a great partnership,” said Thomas, president of 3480, who previously owned an energy company and two training facilities. “It brings an opportunity for us to learn from them. We can’t handle a $250 million contract, but if we do have an opportunity to be involved in a contract like that, we do have our big brother in Gilbane to help our little brother, 3480.”

The partnership evolved out of a personal friendship between Gilbane’s business development manager in Albany and Thomas’ brother-in-law, who initiated conversations nearly two years ago. Gilbane seeks to build its business in upstate and Western New York, where Thomas is a household name.

“Thurman’s really big about trying to grow his local community and be as involved as he can,” said Gilbane Vice President John LaRow. “With 3480 being a relatively newly established company, the ability for Gilbane to come in and help them achieve their vision of growth in Western New York and elsewhere around the country is something we’ve been very interested in. We’re going to provide them with some strategic planning, some resources and some opportunities, but, also recognizing Thurman’s connections in the community, we thought it would be a mutual relationship in Western New York.”

Founded in 1873, the family-owned Gilbane is a full-service construction and facilities management company, with 50 offices worldwide, including Buffalo. The company is based in Providence, R.I. .

Gilbane built facilities for the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, as well as the state Fairgrounds complex and Onondaga Lake Amphitheater in Syracuse, and now employs about 380 statewide. Locally, it worked on the General Motors Co. plant in Town of Tonawanda more than 20 years ago. And it’s the construction manager for the University at Buffalo’s $375 million School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences building.

Working with 3480 also helps Gilbane meet the common bidding requirements for minority and women-owned business contracting and employment, especially on public sector projects.

“We have certain goals that we have to meet on publicly funded projects, and the capacity to meet those goals needs to be nurtured and developed,” LaRow said. “For some firms, it’s easy; for others, it’s not. So our ability to help a company like 3480 grow in the market is a vision that we support.”

The construction venture is a big departure for Thomas, 50, who admits that it’s “totally different from what I’m used to.” Thomas owned Legends Energy Group before selling it to NRG Inc., and also operated training centers at the Eastern Hills Mall and in Elma before selling them.

But his partner, the 52-year-old Johnson, is an industry veteran, after spending 28 years in construction, including eight years in telecommunications. Johnson was a receiver with the Bills in 1988 and ’89.

The duo came together initially about four years ago after Johnson called Thomas for help with generators for his cell towers. They’ve done some telecommunications work locally, including upgrading the Wi-Fi system at Savarino Companies’ 500 Seneca building, where the company later decided to base its office. The pair also teamed up with design and construction firm Wendel for a “strategic alliance” last year, but have not been part of the construction and development wave in Buffalo so far.

“There’s a big renaissance in Buffalo now. It’s been a remarkable change. I’m just happy to see the city come alive,” Thomas said. “For me to be a part of that is really special now ... ”

Thomas said he wants to focus his attention on parts of the community that have not seen as much investment, such as the East Side, certain suburbs or rural areas. “For me, it’s more of a social responsibility now,” he said. “Downtown is taken care of. We want to do a little more in the community, so that’s where we’re focused on right now.”